I entered the new school term with my teeth grinding. Literally. It was when my insomniac spouse shook me awake in the middle of the night and hissed, Stop it, Mara, for god’s sake! He insisted insensitively that I was grinding my teeth. I assured him that it must be only the bed creaking and suggested that he mind his own sleep and don’t interrupt mine. He argued that he woke me to save me from the bad dream that I appeared to be having.
Of course I was having a bad dream, I have nightmares on the regular and I certainly don’t intend to avoid them by not sleeping. (That’s what I didn’t say, I’m not this articulate after a rude wakening – or any wakening, for the matter.) I was dreaming that the doctor who was to do my nose job had the corpse of a patient in his office, a mattress on the floor for a hospital bed, an oil lamp over the operating table and a dirt floor under it. It was all very encouraging.
I commute to work by trains operated by the national Czech Railways. This is a peculiar company that only employs monsters. Their ticket sellers and collectors are carefully chosen to maintain a top level of professional grumpiness in staff. Rumour has it that if their employer is caught smiling at a customer, he or she is fired on the spot. Their trains were manufactured mostly in the seventies to the eighties of the last century; these machines complete the company’s arsenal of Halloween props.
My train was fifteen minutes late. This was a pleasant surprise. Anytime a Czech Railways service arrives on time, we make it a national holiday. (No, we don’t, but we totally should.) Once seated, I put on a distant stare and began to consider how to frighten my students this time into doing something for my class. When a ticket collector opened the compartment door with a bang and yelled, Getchya damned boots off the seat! This was aimed at a fellow passenger, but I nearly got a heart attack. I wish the ticket lady minded my fragile health.
In my station, I managed to elegantly lower myself from the carriage on the ground without planting my face on the concrete. This was quite an achievement, considering the height of the carriage steps and the limited movement allowed by my narrow work-appropriate skirt. The railway hall was crowded as though it were the first day of a new term. Wait. It actually was the first day of a new term.
I had to go for blood tests before my class. I grew so ridiculously health-conscious when I hit thirty that I requested a preventive care exam. The nurse who took my blood hated my veins. In turn, they shrank with fear and hid from her. The lady vampire kept on poking around my arm with the needle and grumbled in what sounded like Mandarin or Martian. She was kind enough to give me a tiny piece of plaster before shoving me out of the room.
The department where I teach was deceptively quiet because I arrived to classes in progress. The door of my office, shared with about a dozen fellow doctoral students, was unlocked but nobody was in. Heck, we must tell the new recruits that they’d better lock the door at all times because we want no more thefts here. (Imagine someone would steal my Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition. The horror, the horror!) The door is fitted with a knob from the outside, but it can be opened with a strong pull and a bit of rattling anyway. This was demonstrated to us by a colleague. I didn’t dare to ask how the idea of breaking in even occurred to him.
I headed straight to the heart of the department. Contrary to popular belief, this is not the office of the department head, but the secretary’s office. Our secretary Camille, also lovingly dubbed She Who Knows Everything, is the single person who stands between us and the outbreak of zombie apocalypse. She is barred from leaving the department for holiday for more than two days in a row because without her, nobody would know what to do and lethal chaos would ensue.
I came to ask Camille for the day’s action plan, and I wasn’t disappointed. Besides equipping me with instructions for the new term, she had some documents for me to sign. One of them looked like a job contract. I had no questions because I trust Camille the most. A long time ago, I did inquire to learn more about the erratic payments arriving at my account from the university with irregular frequency and in random amounts. Camille tried to explain the intricacies, failed and advised me not to worry and be happy as long as the cash is coming. Or until we all end up behind the bars. (My remark.)
My handsome senior colleague entered the office and greeted us cheerfully. I retorted with a surprised Oh, why, hello, because it always strikes me how handsome he really is. It’s not normal for anyone who is less than ugly, fat and old to make a career at our department. (Sorry if I don’t know the politically correct terms for ugly, fat and old. Is it interesting, healthy and mature?) However, said colleague is not only a linguist, he’s a translatologist, and because I’m a literature person and proud, any possibility of a mutual understanding between us is obviously precluded.
Another senior colleague enters the office and is greeted by Hi, Mara, because she happens to have the same name. It always confuses me badly. I ask no one in particular if I may leave now. Given my moderate fame as a proofreader, I hardly ever manage to meet a colleague without incurring a job. Indeed, the handsome translatologist says he’ll email me something; and my namesake retorts that now that I mention it, I can expect 120 pages next week for bibliography proofs. Uh, like a 120 page-book or a 120-page bibliography? Someone behind my back puts a hand on my shoulder and purrs, Easy, easy, a 120-page book. It’s the head of the department. And she scared the hell out of me.
I retire to my empty shared office, decided to soothe myself with some coffee. The shared instant coffee looks as though it had been standing in full sun for the entire summer. It probably had. It’s baked into a solid discoloured block. I wipe the dust out of the least dirty mug, dig into the hard coffee cake and transfer bits of it in the mug. I hope the hot water will disinfect the drink if necessary. Also, I make a mental note to bring my own coffee. I don’t finish the coffee; if coffee it is. On my way to the toilets to rinse the mug, I almost get caught in a crushing crowd of students endlessly streaming from the department’s largest classroom. I hide behind a snack machine to avoid the stampede.
It’s time I go to find my class. I meet Death at the door. It has the shape of an elderly gentleman, neat but very much marked by age. Exactly like the guy who came for Emily Dickinson when she could not stop for death. Death and I have an awkward moment when we both try to open and hold the door for the other. He wins. I slip through the door, murmur Oh, why, thank you and run downstairs. I run the length of the stairs, not because I’m that athletic, but because when you’re running down the stairs wearing heels, they sort of propel you forwards until you hit something. I discreetly hit the wall at the bottom of the stairs to stop myself. Once sufficiently composed, I enter the classroom.
As it’s the first day of a new term and I teach freshmen, the first thing I ask the students if I’m at the right place and if they’re at the right place. My metaphysical question not only doesn’t amuse them, but sends them fumbling quite confused for their timetables. A quirky teacher that I am, I threaten that trespassers will be revealed and expelled. Shockingly, everyone is in the right class, and what more, the names on my attendance sheet seem to correspond exactly to the students present. Nobody is missing, nobody is extra. This unprecedented order throws me out of balance, and at this point I remember to introduce myself to the class.
Well, hello, I’m Mara, I’ve been assigned to you to teach you write, and you’ll hate me. To illustrate the degree to which my students will hate me, I immediately ask them to move to the front rows. I’m not going to shout across the whole room for nothing. Shockingly, the students shift to fully occupy the two front rows, leaving not a single seat empty. I’m starting to suspect that this bunch of unexpectedly compliant youngsters will turn out to be my smartest class ever. I continue to explain the mechanics of my Academic Writing class, smiling a lot because strangely, the students look even more scared than I am. I conclude that though the intended outcome of the class is that they’ll end up writing like me, the outcome so far has unmistakably been that I ended up writing like them.
My second group this day looks as though they are collectively sleepwalking. They are perfectly unresponsive, and I must tell them bluntly that when I say please put up your name tags, it’s not a suggestion but an instruction. There’s a thin, depressed-looking youth in the first row. He reminds me of someone. After a moment of indecent staring, I decide that he reminds me of him. Apparently he was sitting in the first row too when he was taking the entrance exam that I was overseeing. What’s the chance! I impolitely point a pen at him (he hasn’t put up his name tag yet) and ask to confirm my suspicions. I do not mention that I wrote a poem about him.
I wish some of my students were less interesting. I also wish all of my students were more eager to study. With a sigh, I dismiss the class early because there’s no point in us staring blankly at each other and obviously failing to respond to mental stimuli. I’m very careful not to turn my back at any of the sleepwalkers, lest one of them should turn out to be a vampire and bite into my neck. I want no blood on my favourite scarf. The last thing I remind the sleepy bunch that they still have a week to ponder and possibly choose to unenrol from this class. If everyone unenrols, I’ll have a term off. The first day of a new term made me badly in need of it.